A sighting which bird watchers describe as “rarest of rare”, and wildlife photographers as a “huge achievement”, a flock of Long-eared Owls, an Owl specie usually alien to Kashmir, have been spotted and photographed for the first time in the valley in a huge number.
The northern Long-eared Owl, Asio otus, is sub-specie of Long-eared Owl and belongs to the family of owlets and owls, the Strigidae. These owl species are distributed in Europe, western, central and eastern Asia, North America, northern Africa, China, Japan, North Korea and South Korea and northern Indian subcontinent.
It is a medium sized owl, measuring 35 to 40 cm in length and weighing 200 to 400 grams. The overall plumage is brown with buff, dark brown and white streaking all over the body. The head is large and rounded and there are conspicuous dark ear-tufts. The bill is curved and gray in color and the irises are bright yellow. The legs are covered with buff yellow feathers.
These nocturnal hunters roost in dense foliage, where their camouflage makes them hard to find, and forage over grasslands for small mammals. The northern long-eared owl species are partially migratory birds. The subspecies in north of its range in Europe and Asia is migratory and moves southwards in September for wintering in Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Southeast China.
In India, these long-eared owl species are distributed in the states of, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, North West Bengal, and Rajasthan, Assam. The bird is also rarely distributed in Jammu and Kashmir.
On 11th March 2012, Anand Arpit Deomurari an expert on the birds of Gujarat and an accomplished wildlife photographer claimed that while looking for the threatened Great Indian Bustards in Naliya grasslands in Kutch, he came across this bird and took his picture, which he claims is the first photographic of the Long-eared Owl from India.
The bird was also spotted in India in the year 2015. In February 2017 the bird was spotted and photographed again in the state of Sikkim for the first time by Anupam Khanna and Dibyendu Ash on a birding trip to Panglokha Wildlife Sanctuary.
Now, for the first time these rare birds were spotted in huge numbers and photographed in Kashmir by a team of local bird watchers in Central Kashmir’s Ganderbal district. The bird has been photographed only once in Kashmir at Shankar Acharya Hills by a local photographer Jehangir Bakhshi in March 2005.
These impressive creatures were first spotted by Umar Nazir who eventually called his other friends and team members which included Mudassir Manzoor, Rouf Sadiq Tantray, Adil Basheer, Arif Gani and Syed Athar.
“I got a phone call from a birdwatcher friend Umar Nazir he told me that there are almost 20 to 25 Owls which were roosting on the tree line near a lake. We first thought that they must be common Owls, but what we found was unbelievable. They were Northern Long-eared Owls,” said Mudassir Manzoor, a passionate wildlife photographer and bird watcher.
Mudassir said that the bird has only been photographed once in Jammu and Kashmir and the photographs they took are the “first photographic evidence in big number of Northern Long-eared Owls in Kashmir.”
“Although there were records of its distribution in Kashmir, but this was one of the rare sightings as we counted 30 birds,” he said.
The team also rescued one of the birds who was stuck in the wire and was badly injured. The team took the bird to Dr. Shabir, former veterinarian of Wildlife department, at his home who treated the bird and after the over-night rest, released it to join with its group.
“It was a huge relief and a happy movement for all of us. It was really a lucky day for us as we witnessed one of the planet’s most beautiful creatures,” Mudassir said.
This is not the first time Mudassir has been successful in sighting and capturing rare and endangered animals of Kashmir. In autumn of 2018, Mudassir along with his friend photographed Himalayan Serow, a little-known goat antelope, in Brane Nishat Conservation Reserve.
Also earlier in December 2018 they spotted a Red-Naped Shaheen in the Zaberwan Mountains and which, he claims, too was the “first record sighting of the bird of prey”.
“The red napped Shaheen is a rare/uncommon winter visitor to Indian Sub-Continent. So that too was a great achievement for us as professional bird watchers,” Mudassir said, visibly proud and excited.
He said that their efforts will be continuously in the field to find new records and take pictures of birds which were not documented in past.
Talking to QNS 24*7, Dr. Zaffar Rayees Mir, a Wildlife Biologist and National Post Doctoral Fellow in the Division of Wildlife Science, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST) said that the picture is the “first photographic evidence of a big flock of the of the Northern Long-eared Owls in the valley.